If you’ve created a corporate style guide, then you know it isn’t easy. Documenting an organization’s preferences about spelling, punctuation, terminology, jargon, and tone of voice is no small feat.
However, we have little sympathy when style guides contain glaring errors. If a style guide offers bad advice or is full of mistakes, its authority becomes questionable. Blogger Stan Carey provided a great real-life example in a recent post where he took Ireland’s second largest employer (Health Service Executive) to task for its style guide, noting that it suffers from “poor levels of grammar, punctuation, formatting, and spelling.” In the article, which is aptly titled “HSE – Who Proofs the Proofreaders?” Carey points out a variety of errors he discovered in the guide, including typos and inconsistencies, as well as what he deems to be generally bad advice.
HSE isn’t the only organization with a lackluster style guide. Tom Albrighton, another blogger, wrote a similar post about the guide he encountered at the North Norfolk District Council in the UK, which was plagued with so many problems that he felt it lacked all credibility. Albrighton notes, “If brands can’t get their own writing guidelines sorted out, then really, what hope is there? And where does it leave those who are supposed to be working for those brands?”
How to Create a Successful Style Guide
Despite these examples of failed attempts at creating corporate style guides, that doesn’t make the task any less important. After all, having consistent, high-quality content is one of the key steps in creating a positive experience for your customers that accurately reflects your company’s brand.
Below we offer some advice about how to create a great style guide by following six straight-forward steps:
1. Know what you’re trying to achieve and who your audience is
Chances are that your company’s style guide will never be all things to all people, so you’ll only drive yourself crazy if you try to make it so. A better approach is to focus on addressing a limited number of common issues or pitfalls that will help improve the overall quality of the content your company is creating.
In the process, don’t forget who your end users are. Style guides aren’t just for the marketing team or freelance writers, they’re for everyone in your organization. As such, it’s important to make sure your style guide is designed to accommodate people with a wide range of writing skills.
2. Ensure that your guide contains all of the right components
Once you’ve assessed your objectives and audience, you’ll need to build a logical framework to organize your style guide and make sure that it contains the right components. This might include:
- A writer’s checklist like this one
- A list of stylistic do’s and don’ts
- A description of your target tone of voice, with plenty of examples about what works (and what doesn’t)
- A repository of the unique words, phrases, and spellings your company uses to describe itself
- Guidelines on grammar and/or commonly misused words
In addition to categorizing your content into sections like the ones outlined above, organize the relevant points in each group alphabetically to make them easier to find. Doing so, as well as creating a detailed table of contents and index, will make your style guide easier to navigate.
3. Refer to the other third-party reference tools
While company style guides often reflect unique nuances (or exceptions to rules) that are specific to that company, they should primarily align with the rules and best practices set out in other respected resources. For example, you might choose the Chicago Manual of Style as your definitive source for grammar, punctuation, and style issues, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as the basis for your spelling preferences. Limit the number of sources you leverage to avoid confusion and don’t hesitate to direct your readers to them for more information.
4. Personalize your guide
Never underestimate the importance of creativity and humor when writing a style guide to help make dry material more enjoyable to read.
For example, consider incorporating pop culture or, better yet, corporate culture, into your style guide. Illustrate key points with made-up examples about well-known public — or even company — personalities to make them more memorable (such as “Our CEO has over more than 50 new ideas to help the business”).
You could also break your style guide up with famous quotes about writing (such as this one from Stephen King: “Any word you have to hunt for in the thesaurus is the wrong word.”), relevant cartoons, or other personal touches.
5. Promote and enforce
Promote your style guide internally with the same enthusiasm that you would use to launch a new product or service. For example, consider creating a mini-campaign to ensure that copies get into everyone’s hands, as well as to let them know why adhering to a style guide is important. Fair warning: Getting people to adhere to the guide will be a challenge, so you’ve got to be vigilant and persistent in your efforts.
6. Never call it done
A good style guide will evolve over time. Be prepared to incorporate feedback, add in new content, and make other tweaks as needed. Each new version will be that much stronger.
Creating a style guide isn’t easy, but it is worth doing. While content optimization software such as Acrolinx helps medium and large organizations make their style guideline stick, small companies can make a lot of progress by simply documenting best practices and sharing them across their organizations. The steps outlined above will make that process easier for everyone involved.
What do you think? Did we miss anything? If you don’t have a style guide, why not? And if you do, how well does your organization’s content comply?